Why did Trump back Strange?

There has been a lot of speculation as to why President Trump chose to support Luther Strange during Alabama’s Republican primary. Strange, the current sitting senator, is an ally of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He, like McConnell, is a creature of the swamp the president promised to drain. So why would Trump throw his weight behind such a candidate?

Trump tweeted support for Strange a week before the primary election. The race was between a number of Republican candidates with three popular choices angling for the simple majority necessary to secure the nomination. If a majority was not reached the top two vote-getters were slated for a run-off that would determine the winner.

After Trump released his tweet one of the popular candidates, Mo Brooks, took issue:

I am baffled and disappointed Mitch McConnell and the Swamp somehow misled the President into endorsing Luther Strange.

Brooks, like others, believe Strange has a questionable history when it comes to public service. Strange had been appointed earlier in the year by the then-Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to take the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. Of this appointment Brooks said, “Strange corruptly and unethically held a criminal investigation over the head of disgraced Governor Bentley to obtain the senate appointment.”

At the time Governor Bentley battled allegations of an extramarital affair with a female advisor. The legislature floated impeachment. Strange, as the Alabama Attorney General, would’ve been intimately involved. The governor, nevertheless, selected him to fill the open Senate seat. A month after Strange went to Capitol Hill the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause that Bentley violated both ethics and campaign finance laws. The same day impeachment proceedings began Bentley resigned.

In the Senate Strange became fast friends with the Majority Leader. He voted consistently with McConnell and in turn McConnell backed Alabama’s junior senator in the upcoming special election. This visible alignment with the Republican establishment is what Brooks decried as swamp behavior, part and parcel.

There were questions of loyalty. Did Strange really support the president’s agenda or was he feigning support until his seat was secured? I’ll admit, it’s hard to determine given that Strange has never publicly besmirched Trump and voted to the president’s benefit ninety percent of the time. There is the possibility he’s faking it. His opponents, like Brooks, certainly believed this to be the case.

On election night none of the candidates secured the majority of votes in the Republican primary. A run-off was set between the top two: Judge Roy Moore and Strange. Trump maintained his support for the latter candidate, going as far as to campaign in Alabama with the senator. McConnell doubled down, his National Republican Senate Committee sunk tens of millions of dollars into Strange’s campaign. This was an extraordinary amount for a primary race in a state safely held by Republicans.

McConnell’s overt meddling prompted Moore to call out the establishment. Birds of a feather being what they are, Strange owed more to McConnell than Alabamians. Trump, nevertheless, kept at it – tweeting favorably of “Big Luther” up until the big day. What came of the president’s support and the millions spent? Strange lost handily, 45 percent to Moore’s 55.

The landslide victory for Moore, who was regarded as an outsider because of his staunch religious conservatism, created somewhat of a backlash against Trump. The president, adverse to picking losers, could’ve easily abstained. Why then did he chose to insert himself in the primary?

It’s a fair assertion that Strange was not on the “Make America Great Again” bandwagon prior to gaining the Senate seat. Some, like the Breitbart crowd, believe his change of heart was politically expedient and the loyalty would falter come 2018. Trump must’ve been somewhat suspicious given that most polls had Strange lagging behind Moore throughout the contest. Yet the president stayed the course, loyal to a fault. Or was he?

Many on the sidelines interpreted the Alabama race as a contest between former Trump advisor Steve Bannon and the president. The original rift between these men was attributed to a difference in opinion on the populist-nationalist agenda that won Trump the presidency. In the Weekly Standard, after departing the White House, Bannon said, “the Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over. We still have a huge movement, and we will make something of this Trump presidency. But that presidency is over. It’ll be something else.” Bannon further added:

And there’ll be all kinds of fights, and there’ll be good days and bad days, but that presidency is over…

Was this senate race one of those fights? The battle-line had been drawn in Alabama and Bannon, who supports Moore, stood on the opposite side.

Breitbart, where Bannon is executive chief, blamed the errant decision on Trump’s aides, namely his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kusher, a New York Democrat, is often a target of conservative ire (mine included) and it’s possible he persuaded Trump to back the incumbent. Yet when Kusher’s liberal leanings are laid over the benefits of a Senator Strange, an establishment man through-and-through, its hard to believe their would be anything for Kushner to gain.

Other critics, meanwhile, believed that Trump intentionally sided with the establishment’s candidate, to somehow prove that his support alone wasn’t the reason why Moore won or lost. Had Moore won with the president’s endorsement the narrative would’ve been: “if not for Trump…” Perhaps this was a trial balloon. Was the president testing out Trumpism without Trump? This too is possible. I, however, have a more simple explanation.

Republicans control the Senate with a razor thin margin (52 to 48). The fallout from a failed Obamacare repeal effort left the president eager for a legislative win. He made a bold promise on Halloween: Tax Reform by Christmas. This started the clock for House and Senate Republicans, and while the deadline looms the president’s support network had already been laid.

Previously, on August 1st, McConnell proclaimed that a bipartisan tax reform deal could not be reached. He said Republicans must plan to pass the legislation with enough votes to prevent the Democrat’s filibuster. A stalling mechanism in the Senate that can be avoided with a simple majority (51 votes).

Now remember that fact when considering the Alabama election timeline. No bipartisan tax reform, every Republican vote is needed. The first primary contest took place on August 15th. Trump waited until a week before that election to endorse Strange. Why so late? It became clear that the president had to, in some small way, appease Strange. Throw the man a bone. Tax reform, after all, was Trump’s agenda and Strange is worth 1 of those 51 votes. Win or lose, if Trump is to sign that legislation by Christmas he’d need it.

The president’s decision to back the incumbent was, therefore, calculated. Trump can ill-afford losing a single vote, especially to a lame-duck Strange with an axe to grind. By coming out strong behind “Big Luther” and maintaining the endorsement through an ill-fated run-off Trump remained in Strange’s favor. After the loss Trump tweeted his support for the victor without alienating the establishment.

Congratulations to Roy Moore on his Republican Primary win in Alabama. Luther Strange started way back & ran a good race. Roy, WIN in Nov!

I’m fairly certain the president would’ve supported whomever held the seat in hopes of furthering his agenda by year’s end, even if it meant siding with a swamp creature. Politics, after all, makes strange bedfellows. This election is no more a war between Bannon and Trump than it is basic mathematics. Moreover, Trump had already signaled his faith in Bannon after the muckraking-magnate left the administration.

Notice the date on that tweet, August 19th, and add it to the timeline. If I’m permitted to go out on a limb I’d predict that the whole Bannon v. Trump tripe is a clever ruse. By divorcing himself from the president Bannon now plays the crucial role of establishment agitator going into the 2018 mid-term elections. Trump, meanwhile, get’s to keep his hands clean and pander to those already on Capitol Hill. My theory will have plenty of time to play out in the coming months, with a number of establishment Republicans already voicing their intent not to pursue reelection. But until they leave Congress, particularly the Upper House, Trump needs their vote.

The easy answer to why did Trump back Strange? Numbers. He needs the numbers if tax reform is to make it to his desk by Christmas.